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Why student leaders should be elected on merit, not party affiliation

A young man wearing an African National Congress shirt joins in student protests in South Africa. Party politics and student politics shouldn’t mix. Reuters/Sydney Seshibedi

Why student leaders should be elected on merit, not party affiliation

A young man wearing an African National Congress shirt joins in student protests in South Africa. Party politics and student politics shouldn’t mix. Reuters/Sydney Seshibedi

University students in South Africa demonstrated high levels of organisation and solidarity during a series of fee protests in October 2015. Once President Jacob Zuma had declared a 0% fee increase for 2016, that solidarity wavered.

Some students and university workers staged a new set of protests against the practice of outsourcing. But on many campuses students began pleading with their student representative councils (SRCs) to call off the action and allow the scheduled final exams to go ahead. They were ignored.

It has become clear that SRCs no longer represent the majority of students. Many are putting political party loyalties ahead of students’ interests. Their actions were being determined, directly or indirectly, by their mother bodies and parties.

The origin of this breakdown lies in how student representatives are elected. It is time for a change in this electoral system.

Problems with the process

South African SRC elections differ from campus to campus. These inconsistencies stem from the Higher Education Act, which stipulates that the composition and manner of election must be determined by an institution’s own statutes.

Generally, there are between ten and 15 seats on a student council. As with the country’s legislature, an organisation which secures a majority of those seats will be able to pass resolutions with ease. In many instances, student movements or organisations will put forward several candidates in a bid to gain control of the SRC.

The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth is a good example of this system. Students elect their leaders on an individual basis, but these candidates are largely grouped behind a student organisation that is usually tied to a political party. In the 2015 elections the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) won the elections by securing a majority of the central portfolio seats.

These individuals are governed by the student movement they represent. The movement, in turn, can potentially be governed by the political party they fall under. DASO, for instance, is the student arm of the country’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance.

A slight variation of this model can be seen at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits. It also uses a council seat system, but the student body can’t control who takes specific portfolios. The people elected onto the SRC allocate people to different positions.

A major problem arises when it comes to electing the council executive. This system favours larger, more organised student movements. The parties with the most seats have more power over who occupies these important positions, and their wishes often trump those of ordinary students.

Conflicts of interest

South Africa’s Constitution guarantees the freedom of association, so people can join any political party they choose. Why should SRC members be any different? Quite simply because of the potential for a conflict of interest.

Wits’ SRC president Nompendulo Mkatshwa – who took office as the fee protests were hotting up – is an active member of the governing African National Congress (ANC). Some students have alleged that she warned the ANC ahead of a planned march by #FeesMustFall protesters for the party’s headquarters, Luthuli House. It has also been suggested that she opposed the march.

There was clearly a conflict here between what an SRC leader’s constituency – students – wanted, and what her political party would have preferred. In the end, students prevailed. But what happens next time their desires clash with those of the governing party?

The Indian example

India’s SRC elections tend to be hotly contested, even violent affairs. In some states they are even banned, and SRC candidates are selected by university staff.

In 2005 the Supreme Court of India established the J Lyngdoh Commission to investigate student governance issues and elections in particular.

The commission concluded, among other things, that there was a need for candidates to be detached from political parties and to give an undertaking to that effect before being allowed to run for office. It found that SRCs had become “feeder devices” for political candidates, so students were more interested in their own future careers than representing their peers.

The committee noted that, despite an investigation into SRC processes as far back as 1983, “political interference in the student election process is still clearly rampant”. In Kolkata, it reported:

Members of political parties regularly forced independent candidates, or candidates ‘not conforming to the prevalent political ideology’ [not to stand] in student elections.

It said:

The primary need, therefore, is to evolve some mechanism that does away with, or at least minimises the influence of political parties in student elections.

The wheels grind slowly, though. The Supreme Court endorsed this report but only now, a decade on, are there are finally plans to implement it.

Current system should be replaced

The Indian committee’s findings and recommendations could easily be applied to South African universities. Elections on its campuses should take place on the strength of the individual, without political affiliation. Individuals would be allowed to form a caucus, but independent of political parties.

The beauty of such a system is that the candidates would be chosen on merit and on the content of their ideologies and manifestos. This system is not without its faults, but, importantly, it leaves the governing of students to students. There would be no chance of political parties dictating to their campus branches what must happen in student politics.

Such a system would also encourage student leaders to work together as a collective rather than pursuing a political agenda or set of instructions issued from the outside. It would challenge students to think for themselves in resolving issues and to develop their leadership skills.

Party loyalty on campuses is a dangerous trait that should be avoided. To continue with party based student politics is to assume, incorrectly, that students are merely incubators for political parties. Not only does it create potential conflicts on campuses but it also makes student leaders pawns in politicians’ games.